The islands of Mull and Iona have a wonderful folklore, and quite a bit of it includes tales of the supernatural. With a great many Neolithic standing stones, misty glens, caves and ancient ruins, it is little wonder that a host of ghostly tales have sprung up.
Personally I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have to admit that some of the tales I have heard make my blood run cold.
The picture below is taken from around 1900 and looks like it shows ghosts in the foreground of Iona Abbey.
On the west of Mull is MacKinnon’s cave, said to be the most haunted cave in Scotland! Rumour has it that a piper called MacKinnon decided to explore the cave to see how far his pipes could still be heard. Eventually he met a she-ogre who didn’t like his pipe tunes and promptly ate him. His pipes can still be heard when the wind is in the right direction!
Above Dervaig sits a line of standing stones. In the past these were surrounded by forest, and were quite spiritual. I walked my dogs by them a thousand times and never felt anything untoward, but this didn’t stop an American paranormal researcher investigating them and finding signs of ghosts! http://www.darklingroom.co.uk/thl2/mull_stones.html
Duart Castle has its own ghost. A headless horseman, allegedly killed by a MacLean, heralds any death in the MacLean family. Apparently he appears to the dying family member as if waiting to carry off his soul. It’s perfectly safe to visit, but if your surname is MacLean don’t talk to any strangers unless you can be sure they’re definitely wearing a head (preferably their own).
The Islands are so very old and in many cases had a pretty bloody history, that I can easily see why so many tales of Ghosts and Witches and Warlocks, headless horsemen and Ghouls are so common.
As I said I don’t believe in ghosts but something happened to me that made me think again!
One Winter’s night, the wind was blowing from the north and the clock showing just before midnight as I came over the Mishnish lochs heading to Dervaig. The moon was about three quarters full but clouds raced by causing a flickering, unsteady light. A mist was hovering just above the road surface but the car was warm, and I was thankful that I wasn’t outside on a night like this. The wee road between Tobermory and Dervaig is a beautiful but lonely one at the best of times and on a cold Winter’s night there wasn’t a light to be seen anywhere and not a house for five miles in any direction.
Having been brought up in the country, and seen half the world, mostly on my own, I have never had a fear of the dark and have often laughed gently at those who do, but I got a hell of fright when I saw a girl at the side of the road at the old ruined house at the base of the Lochan’s Airde Beinn (the crater loch).
I brought the car to a stop and asked her what the hell she was doing at midnight in the middle of nowhere and could I give her a lift. (Mull and Iona Island life means it is still a place where folk don’t think twice about stopping to offer lifts). As the girl smiled and climbed in to the car I noticed she was oddly dressed, in an old tweed cape and a bonnet. I asked he if she had been practicing for the Mull and Iona pantomime, but she just smiled and asked if I could drop her off just outside Dervaig.
I noticed right away that the temperature in the car had fallen considerably, and I assumed it was either the dodgy heater or the cold air that came in the door. I pulled my jacket closer and asked the girl if she was cold…”Aye she said softly, always that, always cold”.
By this stage we had reached the outskirts of the village just above the old cemetery at Dervaig, near what had been the old water works. “Just here is fine” said the girl so quietly that I had to strain to hear her. There are a few new houses built around this area so I wasn’t surprised at dropping her there. What did surprise me was that as I looked in the mirror she had disappeared. I stopped the car and jumped out to make sure she hadn’t fallen in a ditch, but there was no sign of her at all. I shrugged and figured she must be heading down the drive to the new houses.
Given the Bellachroy hotel at Dervaig had fairly liberal licensing hours around that time, (you keeked round by the kitchen door to see if there was any light coming from under the shutters on the bar which heralded a lock-in) I thought I would nip in for a quick one before bed.
I was greeted warmly by two local Dervaig boys; two of the kindest and most comical characters you will ever meet. I got the round in sharpish, a dram of Grouse, a pint and a Cameron Brig and settled down for a chat. The talk quickly led to me recanting how I had picked up a girl on the way over.
To begin with there was the usual good humoured leg pulling, but the conversation grew more serious. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming” I was asked, and soon a conversation was going around the bar to try to establish who the girl could be. In a village of about 100 people I was surprised that no one seemed to know the girl I had given a lift to. Eventually I was taken aside by Mrs Mhairi McCuish, who at over 70 years old had spent her whole life in the village and knew everyone. “Son, she said quietly, You had better fill that whisky glass again, the lassie you picked up on the road tonight, was it by the old ruined house?” I said it was. “Did the car get really cold when she got in?” I admitted it did.
“Well she said slowly….I think you met someone who you shouldn’t have, and I’m glad you are ok.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, wondering when the punchline was coming, Mhairi was not above a good humoured wind up!
“Son, she said, that lassie is long dead.” I nearly choked on my dram. “What…when…what are you on about, I just saw her”, but somewhere inside of me, I knew she was right.
“Her name was Kirstie McLellan and she died on this day in December 1895.”
I felt like my chest was going to cave in! I quickly gulped my dram and looked around to see the faces of the others in the bar…but everyone was quiet or studying their drinks intently.
Mhairi went on, “The lassie was a domestic servant in love with the son of the laird of Glengorm. And as these things tend to do, she ended up with a baby. The idea of a serving lassie and a laird’s son together was completely unacceptable, but they were in love and he agreed to run away with her. She was to meet him at the cottage on the loch, where they had been meeting secretly for a year.”
Mhairi paused and I swear I could see tears in her eyes, “He never came”.
“Overcome with grief she just walked in to the hills. After the alarm was raised the next day a search party was organised and her poor wee frozen body was found up by the crater loch. Afterwards the folk in the village here got together and gave her a proper burial.”
After a few minutes that felt like hours, I slowly let out my breath. “Mhairi, did they bury her in the old graveyard up on hairpin bend?” I asked, knowing what the answer would be. “Aye son, she wasn’t from here and nobody knew her kin, so she was buried here where we could look after her.”
“Every now and then someone sees her on the Mishnish lochs road, standing in a cape and bonnet by the roadside still waiting for her young laird to come and take her away, mind you most of us aren’t daft enough to give her a lift.”
By this stage I had imbibed too many drams to safely drive home, and with my head buzzing and my thoughts racing I decided to head home, past the old cemetery and over the hill to Achnadrish.
As I walked past the old cemetery I swear I heard someone humming a sad old tune.
But then, I don’t believe in Ghosts……